In this group of memoirist essays art and life intersect to create a powerfully moving portrait of cultural and personal change. It feels like this book has been a long time coming and in later essays Sinéad Gleeson refers to its gradual creation as well as obstacles which sharpened its focus. I’ve been familiar with Gleeson’s work as a journalist and a curator since she edited two stunning anthologies of Irish short fiction by women: “The Long Gaze Back” and “The Glass Shore”. So I was already familiar with her stance as a feminist and aesthete, but it wasn’t till reading this gripping and mesmerising book that I understood how her personal history partly informs her conversation with literature and the arts. The essays roughly follow the trajectory of her life from childhood to adulthood and the severely challenging medical issues she’s faced along the way. These health issues presented many heartrending and difficult obstacles, but they also gave Gleeson a unique perspective of the world around her as a woman, citizen, friend, mother and intellectual. She charts how her beliefs and feelings have evolved alongside the society around her. Certainly she’s lived through many personal challenges, but she’s never let them define her. Rather, they’ve inspired a deeper form of engagement with the world and fervent belief that “Art is about interpreting our own experience.”

I read these essays in chronological order and, while they would certainly be just as impactful read in isolation, it’s touching following her journey from a childhood as a devote Catholic visiting Lourdes hoping for a miracle cure to an adult political activist canvassing from door to door to help overturn Ireland’s abortion ban. We see different angles of her experiences with illness such as a rare disorder that caused her bones to deteriorate and later battles with cancer. She also recounts how her past illnesses created complications for her pregnancies. Her many visits to the hospital inform her ontological understanding of the body as a physical and social being. She perceives how “The pregnant body is not solely its owner’s domain. In gestating another person you become public property. The world – doctors, friendly neighbours, women in shop queues – feels entitled to an opinion on it.” Her experiences with doctors and legislation involving the body sharpen her resolve about the importance of individual autonomy and respecting what a person wants and needs.


There are also many very perceptive assessments of the work of numerous visual and performance artists as well as writers. Gleeson poignantly reflects on her personal connection to their themes and subject matter. For instance, she describes how she’s moved by the work of Frida Kahlo as someone whose body was similarly physically restricted through medical procedures. She notes how “Immobility is gasoline for the imagination: in convalescence, the mind craves open spaces, dark alleys, moon landings.” Gleeson seeks out artists who meaningfully frame their experiences in a way that broaden the political conversation and offer moments of personal solace. The essay 'The Adventure Narrative' also honours cavalier women who have set out to explore the world since this is traditionally seen as a masculine activity – as explored in Abi Andrews’ novel “The Word for Woman is Wilderness”. But, aside from noteworthy female explorers and impactful women artists, Gleeson also chronicles the experience of women who have been left out of the history books such as in the essay 'Second Mother' where she memorializes the life of a great woman who inspired her passion for reading.

I was utterly entranced by this book. It’s incredibly brave to write so openly about such personal subject matter. In writing so thoughtfully about her life Gleeson compellingly explores many larger ideas and issues, showing how they connect to a shared sense of culture and society. For all the heartache and struggle these essays cover, this is also a wonderfully optimistic and uplifting book that ought to be treasured.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesSinead Gleeson
2 CommentsPost a comment
Calypso David Sedaris.jpg

It’s become something of an annual tradition that my boyfriend and I read to each other David Sedaris’ ‘Santaland Diaries’ around Christmas time. So when we got his new book “Calypso” I gradually read him the entire collection over a period of several weeks. Sedaris’ hilariously black humour is perfect for being shared publicly and read aloud – which is why Sedaris has become so successful touring and reading aloud from the memoirist essays in his bestselling books. This, in turn, has fuelled new stories in some of his most recent essays included in this book which recount how he frequently travels to entertain audiences. This can result in funny and bizarre encounters with the public. One audience member even took him back to her house where she cut out a benign tumour from David’s body. He didn’t want this procedure to take place in a hospital because the law required they dispose of the tumour and David had an unfathomable compulsion to save his tumour to feed to a disfigured wild turtle. Such freakish desires and occurrences are commonplace in Sedaris’ writing. His unique point of view and sense of humour are so bombastic while being oddly relatable to make his essays relentlessly entertaining.

However, many of these most recent essays are also tinged with a sense of grief and a growing awareness of his own mortality. Many centre around family get-togethers Sedaris orchestrates after purchasing a vacation beach house on Emerald Isle, off the coast of North Carolina – a place he hilariously names The Sea Section. The family used to regularly take trips to a rented property in this area when David was growing up. Now he’s reinstated this tradition with the added bonus that, because he owns the property, he gets to set the rules and assign who takes each bedroom. But absent from these new family trips are his mother who died a number of years ago and sister Tiffany who committed suicide after a prolonged struggle with mental problems and substance abuse. David was estranged from her for a number of years after a sad final parting so David’s sense of grief is also mixed with feelings of guilt and frustration. It’s interesting how there’s been a shift in these essays which have become more reflective and sombre while still retaining his trademark sense of humour and appreciation for the absurd.

There’s also a political slant to some of the essays which reflect the widening gulf of conservative and liberal opinion where David’s elderly father frequently spouts Trump-inspired rhetoric. He’s an individual oddly similar to the reactionary grandfather in Barbara Kingsolver’s most recent novel “Unsheltered” and I wonder if this is because they represent an older contingent of US citizen particularly prone to the paranoid indignation of conservative chat shows. Anyway, adding to the dark sense of absence left by some family members in Sedaris’ essays is an awareness of how little time he has left with his father and how difficult it is for them to speak to each other. Nevertheless, encounters with his father are frequently very funny and the weird blend of personalities which include his stalwart partner Hugh and wacky sister Amy make for some absolutely hilarious scenes. It’s always a gas following David’s antics and his family experiences - all captured with his mordantly humorous slant on life.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesDavid Sedaris

Édouard Louis’ voice is so passionate and urgent in how he writes about class and sexuality in relation to his personal experiences. It’s no wonder he’s gained a global audience since the English publication of his debut novel “The End of Eddy” in 2017. Now, at the age of 26, he’s published his third book and I wonder if his productivity is outpacing the power of his ideas. “Who Killed My Father” is categorized as a ‘memoir/essay’ and his inspiration for writing it is based on recent visits to his father who is only in his 50s but severely physically debilitated. He queries throughout the book what brought his father to this point, but begins with the premise that his father is condemned to “the category of humans whom politics has doomed to an early death.” Through emotionally-charged reflections in three parts which criss-cross over time Louis considers the many culprits that he deems responsible. While I agree with many of his ideas and felt moved by the sections of his life that are portrayed, I feel his arguments lack some nuance and are fuelled more by anger than complex reasoning.

Part of the difficulty with feeling fully engaged by the essayistic sections of this book is that Louis keeps falling back on generalities like “male privilege”, “ruling class” and “politics” as pernicious agents. But continuously making accusations against these amorphous concepts begins to feel like throwing stones into the dark. Louis shows how they have a personal effect in multiple ways. The author, his family and the people in his village are perniciously effected by ideas of masculinity. He names politicians in the third section and how their callous policies dismiss the struggles of the working class. His polemic is a valuable reminder to see connections in how society operates and that we shouldn’t be complacent. Yet I hope for more subtlety and proactive ideas if he’s going to make a broad pronouncement like “what we need is a revolution.”  

The author’s reminiscences are really powerful in how he considers the unseen forces at work behind his family’s actions. But an odd feature of this very short book is that references are made to scenes from “The End of Eddy”. So, even though it’s such a brief book, it can feel repetitive if you are familiar with his first novel. I felt the most striking section was the second part where Louis holds himself to account for instigating a violent fight between his big brother and father to get revenge on his mother. It’s to his credit that the author is equally ardent in excoriating his own participation in the violent relationships he quite rightly identifies in society. Louis’ guilt is palpable and probably many of us are guilty of intentionally trying to emotionally or physically hurt our parents at some point in our immature years – especially if a parent maligns us.

When I heard the author presenting his first novel I remember him remarking how the question of whether or not he loves his parents isn’t important to him. But in this new book he expresses his love for his father by seeking justice for his father’s premature flailing heath and by explicating stating his feelings. This shows a really touching emotional maturity since his first book. There’s no doubt that his voice is important - I just wish this book had more of an impact and didn’t read like just a sketch of a number of ideas. He’s such an intelligent and thoughtful writer that I hope his rigorous analytical abilities continue to progress in his future books.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesEdouard Louis

This short and powerful nonfiction piece by Valeria Luiselli is such a poignantly constructed insight into the immigration crisis/debate in America now. Luiselli relates her experiences working as a volunteer interviewing thousands of children from Central America who have been smuggled into the United States and are seeking residency/citizenship. She asks them questions from an intake questionnaire created by immigration lawyers that will play a large part in determining if the children will be granted status to remain or face deportation. Going through the questions one at a time she explains the way the immigration system is designed to keep as many people out as possible without accounting for these children’s vulnerable situation or America’s role in the creation of this crisis. At the same time, she relates her personal experiences as a Mexican immigrant whose own ability to work was restricted because of a delay with her visa. It’s an achingly personal book that makes a strong political statement. It skilfully asserts something that shouldn’t need to be stated, but which we need to be reminded of in a political climate that overwhelmingly seeks to vilify immigrants: that these are children who have suffered through hell and that by treating them as criminals we are only adding to their trauma.

Luiselli’s justified anger and frustration about the situation these children find themselves in is palpable throughout the book. As a volunteer whose main job is to translate the children’s answers and who can do nothing to assist or change the outcome of their cases she feels that “It was like watching a child crossing a busy avenue, about to be run down by any of the many speeding cars and trucks”. It’s striking how government policies don’t seem to recognize the human faces that Luiselli meets, but implements decisions based on strategic ways of restricting vulnerable children’s ability to fairly state their case and strip them of their humanity. In fact, it was shocking to learn how the Obama administration worked with the Mexican president to implement immigration policies in Mexico to more effectively prevent immigrants from other Central American countries from getting to the US in the first place. Given the current president’s stance on immigration from Central America it’s terrifying to think how even greater walls are being created to keep out children who face continuous abuse, slavery or death in their own communities.

People in the US are made to feel that these problems belong to the Central American countries, but the issues of drug wars, arms trade and gang violence are intimately tied with US history and its policies. Luiselli reminds us how “No one suggests that the causes are deeply embedded in our shared hemispheric history and are therefore not some distant problem in a foreign country that no one can locate on a map, but in fact a transnational problem that includes the United States – not a distant observer or passive victim that must now deal with thousands of unwanted children arriving at the southern border, but rather as an active historical participant in the circumstances that generated that problem.”

Threaded throughout this book is the request from Luiselli’s daughter to know how the stories of these immigrant children end. Of course, all of their stories are just beginning so in response she says “Sometimes I make up an ending, a happy one. But most of the time I just say: I don’t know how it ends yet.” I greatly admire the clear-sighted observations found in this book and its tremendous heart. 

AuthorEric Karl Anderson

I’ve lived in London for almost twenty years now. It’s been disturbing and fascinating for me as an immigrant to Britain from America to have witnessed the politically and socially disastrous onset of Brexit last year. Inextricably linked to this public vote was the issue of immigration and no matter who claims this was only about job protection it was really about race, class, language and power. Conservative white colleagues in my office vociferously complained about how we need to stop the flood of immigrants who steal British jobs and drain the benefits system. Amidst my angry arguments with them it felt pertinent to point out that I’m an immigrant as well. I first came to this country on a temporary work visa and took a job which could easily have been filled by a British native before I eventually became a citizen. I also took a British boyfriend who was dating a girl at the time we met. So, watch out people of Britain! I’m taking your jobs and your men! But, of course, my colleagues don’t include me as a threat in their paranoid critique because I’m white, educated, often dress in bland jeans/t-shirts and speak English as a first language (albeit softly with amusing American inflections). Their hatred was really directed at the brown men who deliver their mail and the women in burkas pushing prams in their London neighbourhoods. So rather than listen anymore to the feckless ranting of my colleagues I’d much rather listen to the inspiring range of diverse voices contained in the anthology “The Good Immigrant.”

In the same way that the “Black Lives Matter” campaign reinforces a message that should be perfectly obvious, this anthology makes a simple statement that unfortunately needs to be announced in bold lettering in order to be understood. These essays include a multitude of differing views, opinions, ideas and stories which are consistently engaging because they are written with such personal feeling. The authors include a range of BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) British individuals: artists, comedians, writers, academics, professionals and journalists whose voices speak powerfully about the experience of being seen as “other” or “foreign” within their own country. They include heartrending testimonies about the way people who are not white are regularly marginalized and under-represented within British society. Speaking specifically about depictions of Chinese people Wei Ming Kam observes “We're not seen as human, because we never get to be complex individuals. Our defining characteristic is generally our foreignness.” These essays range from lightly humorous recollections to provocative thoughts to shocking accounts of racial stigma and abuse. It’s so refreshing reading these huge ranging points of view that I found the experience of reading this anthology utterly absorbing.

Several of the essays are written by actors whose combined testimony makes an interesting reflection on the way their profession of performing oftentimes intersects with the compulsion to feel one must perform within racial expectations. These include Riz Ahmed pointing out the extraordinary irony of being rigorously searched at airports when travelling for auditions or acting jobs whilst having just famously portrayed a wrongly incarcerated man in the film The Road to Guantanamo. He also eloquently reflects on the levels of internalized identity conflict which results from such continuous “random” searches and type casting. Actor Daniel York Loh beautifully reflects on his East Asian wrestling role model who was in actuality something very different from what he expected and how his recollections have been muddled by the mechanics of memory. Actress Miss L states how after years and years of acting training she’s doled out the role of a wife of a terrorist and how “being told you can only play one role because of how you look is quite the rap across the jazz hands.” Actor Himesh Patel gives another viewpoint where he explains how he never felt self conscious about being racially different in the small English village he grew up in, but unexpectedly became more uncomfortably aware of it when moving to London. These actors consistently point out how often the non-white roles available to them tragically lack any sort of nuance and it leads a self-confessed fan of television and films like Bim Adewunmi to reasonably complain in her essay that “I like to see myself in the surrounding culture.” So a show like Aziz Ansari’s Master of None comes as a much-needed breath of fresh air.

It’s interesting to think about these perspectives on available acting roles in relation to Reni Eddo-Lodge’s contemplation of how black identity can be partly filtered through characters on television and how dangerous it is to subscribe to the conformist values which Bill Cosby declared in an infamous speech. As an alternative, Eddo-Lodge urges black individuals to “make your own version of blackness in any way you can – trying on all the different versions, altering them until they fit.” A self consciousness about the way to be black in a predominantly white society is also reflected in several other essays including Varaidzo’s exceptional 'A Guide to Being Black' where she notes how someone might be unaware of one's own racial heritage when others expect you to be an expert on it and how race is both “a performance and a permanence.” Salena Godden compellingly thinks through the social connotations of skin shade and Coco Khan recounts her experience of becoming sexually active. After a white lover points out to her that she is his first Asian she finds that when she meets a new lover she frets “does this person actually want me or am I a brown-shaped thing that will do?”

Other essays fascinatingly contemplate the way language and names are entwined with racial identity. Some words are incorrectly appropriated into the British lexicon as noted in Nikesh Shukla essay 'Namaste' where he describes the frustrating experience of being a tired father with casually racist noisy neighbours. Chimene Suleyman considers the ramifications of feeling compelled to change one's name to make it easier for people to pronounce/remember. Vera Chok dissects the way race labels are used differently while also pointing out stereotypes about the perceived sexual submission/compliance of Chinese women. Inua Ellams ingeniously structures his survey of what men talk about in barber shops within different African countries to illuminate and challenge blanket notions of what it is to be African and a black man. Amidst Kieran Yates’ very articulate contemplation on her dual national identity she notes “Even when you get the language, unless you shed your accent, you're continually reminded of your difference.” While she reflects on the pain of not entirely fitting within either her Punjabi or British culture, I found it very enlightening and moving how she also describes the sometimes advantageous position of being an outsider: “that I have a stake in two worlds is what makes me able to love and respect them and absorb the details that simultaneously empower and disempower me.” There's pain in this “plurality of strangeness” but there's wisdom and strength in it too because “Being aware of inadequacies or seeing your own strangeness through different eyes, gives us a wholeness that allows us to see the world with humour, nuance, and complexity.”

This anthology does so much more than politicians’ empty platitudes about wanting an inclusive society. It reflects the experience and complicated sensation of being made to feel like an outsider in your own neighbourhood. It informs and suggests strategies for keeping the conversation going - especially Darren Chetty's forceful essay about including books with racial diversity in schools. It articulates the frustration that so many people must have felt, but never had the chance to express. It annihilates the fantastical notion of idiots who want to “take back Britain” that there could be or ever has been a Britain that isn’t made of individuals with many different skin colours, cultural backgrounds and beliefs. Sabrina Mahfouz astutely observes “The rhetoric around the term 'British' insidiously attempts to equate it with a pre-multicultural England.” This anthology is a book that enriches our understanding of what Britain is. Personally, I would have liked to read one or two more essays about the unique experience of being a queer BAME individual. Other than some references and Musa Okwonga's mention of his bisexuality there isn't much discussion of sexuality in this book. Of course, that's not the focus but I think there's a unique range of experiences there to explore. For recent examples of this writing I’d direct you to new publications like Viet Thanh Nguyen’s story ‘The Other Man’ in his collection “The Refugees” or “No One Can Pronounce My Name” by Rakesh Satyal or Olumide Popoola’s exciting forthcoming novel “When We Speak of Nothing.” Otherwise, I’d highly recommend reading “The Good Immigrant” for its rich range of humour, intelligence, heart and enlightening perspectives. It also makes a wonderful companion to the anthology “An Unreliable Guide to London” which gives a multi-layered diverse picture of the capital.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesNikesh Shukla
8 CommentsPost a comment

Joyce Carol Oates is such a prolific writer that it may surprise some of her readers to discover that she is also a committed and voracious reader. It’s easy to imagine the perennial question which Oates is asked “How do you write so much?” being quickly followed by “How do you read so much?” Soul at the White Heat is a sustained and fascinating collection of nonfiction chronicling not only her reflections as a writer, but her engagement with a wide range of books by authors —some of whom are “classics” and others “contemporaries.” Every analysis or review Oates gives of a single book is scattered with mentions of that author’s other publications as well as a wide variety of other writers and books which provide enlightening points of reference. The collection is filled primarily with book reviews, so the subtitle “Inspiration, Obsession, and the Writing Life” clues the reader into how the compulsion to write is inextricably linked to the desire to read widely and rigorously. Because this collection comes from a writer of such productivity and stature, it can be read in two ways. The first is as an astute survey of writing from some of the greatest past and present practitioners of the craft. The second is as a supplement to Oates’s own fiction, providing fascinating insights into how her perspective on other writing might relate to her past publications. However, underlying this entire anthology is the question of why writers feel inspired to write and what compels us to keep reading.

For some writers, Oates gives an informative overview of that author’s complete output. There is the “weird” writing of H.P. Lovecraft or the “bold and intriguing” detective fiction of Derek Raymond both of which lead Oates to make intriguing observations about the nature of genre. Another section gives a broad look at the life and work of famously prolific author Georges Simenon with a special consideration for the memoirist nature of one of his pivotal novels. In one of the most personal pieces Oates recounts a visit and interview she conducted with Doris Lessing in 1972 where she considers Lessing’s psychologically realist fiction alongside her audacious science fiction. Oates nobly raises the stature of some lesser known writers such as Lucia Berlin by drawing comparisons between her “zestfully written, seemingly artless” short stories and the firmly established writing of Charles Bukowski, Grace Paley, and Raymond Carver.

Oates has taught literature and writing for most of her life and in several pieces it’s possible to gauge her academic nature to inspire and provoke more nuanced thinking. Such is the case in one of the opening essays where she meticulously dissects the “anatomy of a story.” In “Two American Prose Masters” she makes a sharply analytical critique of how tense is used in a short story by John Updike and contrasts this with a heartrending story by Ralph Ellison. At other times she questions how style and form are related to subject matter. For instance, when considering Martin Amis’s The Zone of Interest she asks if a postmodernist use of irony excludes emotion no matter how devastating or “mighty” the subject matter. In considering the “detached and ironic tone” of much of Margaret Drabble’s fiction she prompts the reader to ask how this reflects contemporary English culture and feminism. As much as making judgements throughout these numerous essays and reviews, Oates draws readers to more attentively question how they read fiction.

As a critic, Oates shows a great deal of empathy towards the artfulness employed by the vast array of writers she discusses in this book. If negative points are made they are often balanced by something positive. However, she certainly doesn't shy away from pointing out severe failings in either authors or their books. Such is the case with H.P. Lovecraft who for all the wonder of his gothic imagination was “an antiSemite . . . racist, and all-purpose Aryan bigot” and she observes how “For all his intelligence and aesthetic theorizing, Lovecraft was, like Poe, a remarkably uneven writer.” When reviewing the novel The Beginner's Goodbye by Anne Tyler and Tyler's parochial portrait of the diverse city of Baltimore she surmises that “the fiction is determinedly old-fashioned, 'traditional' and conservative; it takes no risks, and confirms the wisdom of risklessness.” In the case of Karen Joy Fowler whose novel We Are Completely Beside Ourselves Oates admires as “boldly exploratory” she nonetheless considers it a misjudgement to limit the novel's point of view to the first person. She circumvents even mentioning Fowler's novel for the first five pages of the review by embarking on a fascinating consideration of Darwin and animal rights.

Oates doesn’t strictly limit herself to the realm of fiction in her criticism. She also reviews nonfiction and autobiography. These range from what might be the new definitive biography of Charles Dickens by Claire Tomalin to Margaret Atwood’s overview of science fiction In Other Worlds (where Oates cites the notable absence of Doris Lessing) to Jeanette Winterson’s memoir about her attempted suicide. When considering an “unauthorized” biography of Joan Didion titled The Last Love Song by Tracy Daugherty, Oates considers the evolution of Didion’s writing and how in her journalism she finds “a perfect conjunction of reportorial and memoirist urges.” Sometimes Oates asks how real-life relationships between writers and artists influence their output. When surveying the published letters between Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz she wonders if it weren’t for Stieglitz’s influence whether O’Keeffe would still have achieved her deserved legacy as an American icon of the art world. There is also an essay which contemplates the difficult later years of Mike Tyson in the book Undisputed Truth as well as a review of the film The Fighter where Oates draws upon her considerable knowledge of boxing to critique the way the film misses out on the athletic art form of the sport. It’s easy to see why Oates was motivated to write about these last two examples because of the sustained interest in the sport she’s shown throughout her career in both her fiction such as her most recent novel A Book of American Martyrs and her slim nonfiction book On Boxing.

The title is taken from a Dickinson poem "Dare You See a Soul At The White Heat?" In this photo Oates is dressed as Emily Dickinson.

The title is taken from a Dickinson poem "Dare You See a Soul At The White Heat?" In this photo Oates is dressed as Emily Dickinson.

There are many pieces in Soul at the White Heat which will intrigue the avid reader of Oates’s oeuvre for how the subjects and writing styles she discusses relate to her own work. For example, Oates is highly sympathetic with Derek Raymond’s “existential pilgrim as detective, the object of his inquiry nothing less than the meaning of life itself.” This is both a mode of writing and character type she also used in her exemplary post-modernist detective novel Mysteries of Winterthurn. There is also a very considered review of Larry McMurtry’s novel The Last Kind Words Saloon where he realistically renders the now mythic figures of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday just as Oates sought to reimagine the girl behind the legend of Marilyn Monroe in her monumental novel Blonde. Oates admires the different slant on Dickinson’s life Jerome Charyn takes in his novel The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson which is interesting to consider alongside Oates’s extremely imaginative short story “EDickinsonRepliLuxe” where she gives the classic American poet a second life as a computerized mannequin. When writing about Lorrie Moore's distinctive short stories Oates pays particular attention to two stories which rewrite particular tales by Vladimir Nabokov and Henry James (writers whose stories Oates has also previously created her own versions of). Despite there being many parallels in themes between her own work and these other writers, Oates tactfully never references her own fiction.

Soul at the White Heat opens with four somewhat candid pieces about the writing process and her own “credo” as an artist. It's possible to see how she holds to her “several overlapping ideals” when looking back at both her fiction and the way she critiques other writer's books. In Oates's writing room she reflects how her younger self would feel “stunned” that she would produce so many books when “each hour's work feels so anxiously wrought and hard-won.” From the confined space of the study this anthology ends by moving out into “real life” with a touching, vividly detailed essay about a visit Oates undertook to San Quentin prison where she admits her idealistic urge “To learn more about the world. To be less sheltered. To be less naïve. To know.” Although this is not mentioned in the piece, Oates was subsequently inspired to help bring the stories of prisoners to the public consciousness by editing the extremely engaging anthology Prison Noir. For an author who writes so infrequently about her own life (recent memoirs A Widow’s Story and The Lost Landscape being notable exceptions) it’s refreshing to meet Oates’s voice when unmediated by the guise of fiction. Here is someone so “inspired” and “obsessed” with the boundless excitement and vertiginous joy to be found in great literature that she is motivated to devote so much time to the activity of reading when she’s not writing her own fiction. Perhaps this is the real answer to that oft-asked question of how Oates has produced over one hundred books of fiction. It’s not about how it’s done; it’s about why she does it.

This review also appeared on Bearing Witness: Joyce Carol Oates Studies

AuthorEric Karl Anderson

It's been an emotional week. On Friday when the result of the UK referendum about whether to remain in the EU came out as leave I felt an enormous sense of grief and worry. Like many people who wanted us to remain, I could do little but spend the day watching the depressing news unfold in the press and scrolling through the outcry on twitter. The consequences of this are so uncertain with theories and predictions running wild it gets to a point where it feels too maddening to continue following. So I decided to turn off the news and pick up a book I've been meaning to get to since it came out in April. Annie Dillard is a writer I've always adored, admired and read for inspiration. “The Abundance” is exactly what I needed. Reading this book now isn't hiding from reality; it's a way of facing the complexity and mystery of it more fully.

It turns out Annie Dillard has something very sensible to say about calamitous events. She writes: “It’s been a stunning time for us adults. It always is. Nothing is new, but it’s fresh for every new crop of people. What is eternally fresh is our grief. What is eternally fresh is out astonishment. What is eternally fresh is our question: What the Sam Hill is going on here?” Her cool gaze at the perpetually surprising turn of disastrous events in the world is tempered by an acknowledgement of our very human response to cry, shake our heads in wonder and react. What's important to remember is that there are lives of individuals like you and me at stake no matter how far removed we might feel from tragic events reported in the news.

Dillard's subjects are wide-ranging and idiosyncratic. She writes about on occasion when Allen Ginsberg and journalist/political dissident Liu Binyan took a stroll in Disneyland, a restrained deer in the Ecuadorian jungle and the life of the French palaeontologist Teilhard de Chardin. Several of her essays explore poignant autobiographical moments from her childhood and adolescence. There are endearing recollections such as her parents' fondness for jokes and more touching moments such as her break with the church, a romantic obsession or dancing to loud music with her father and sisters after reading “On the Road”. Her sense of growing rebellion is described as “I was a dog barking between my own ears, a barking dog who wouldn’t hush.” And also “I was an intercontinental ballistic missile with an atomic warhead. They don’t cry.” These descriptions of the heightened emotion of adolescence are as strong as any metaphors you find in fiction. Although the story of her upbringing is particular it is easy to identify with her universal stages of development. She has a special way of articulating a burgeoning awareness and engagement “as though my focus were a brush painting the world.”

There are moments when Dillard begins to sound like the best kind of preacher. She's someone who describes the world and makes it feel utterly fresh so that you see more clearly how you fit into and interact with it: “You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.” It's easy in life to become complacent but Dillard urges “You must go at your life with a broadaxe” and to be present and committed: “you have to fling yourself at what you’re doing, you have to point yourself, forget yourself, aim, dive.” Imagery such as diving is repeated over a number of essays: “The diver wraps herself in her reflection wholly, sealing it at the toes, and wears it as she climbs rising from the pool, and ever after.” This is a beautiful way of describing how we can wed the reality of our lives and the way we imagine it. Other moments describe a terrifying confrontation with the abrupt end of life such as an instance where she comes upon the deflated skin of a frog or the screams people emit when the landscape is consumed by darkness during a total eclipse.

"I would like to live as I should, as the weasel lives as he should: open to time and death painlessly, noticing everything, remembering nothing, choosing the given with the fierce and pointed will."

"I would like to live as I should, as the weasel lives as he should: open to time and death painlessly, noticing everything, remembering nothing, choosing the given with the fierce and pointed will."

The final essay is one of the most sustained and ambitious pieces in the whole collection. Here she alternates between passages about expeditions to the poles of the earth and attending services at a church. She describes arduous journeys of the 19th century when ships became trapped in ice, but the expedition continued on sled or on foot: “They man-hauled their sweet human absurdity to the Poles.” At one point in the essay the line between religious experience and the hunt for the ends of the earth blurs. The churchgoers become the explores trudging through snow. She explains how “Wherever we go, there seems to be only one business at hand – that of finding a workable compromise between the sublimity of our ideas and the absurdity of the fact of us.”

I've read many of the essays included in this book before. It was somewhat of a surprise to discover that there isn't any newly written material in “The Abundance.” This is work that has been taken from past books and rearranged. It hardly matters because it's Annie Dillard. If you haven't read her before this is a wonderful introduction to how her endlessly-insightful mind works and even if you've previously read everything she's written her writing bears endless revisiting. Certainly any writer should read and pay close attention to her classic essay ‘A Writer in the World’ where she describes the importance of reading as much as writing: “Why are we reading, if not in hope of beauty laid bare, life heightened, and its deepest mystery probed?” There is a satisfying arc to how these essays flow from the first to the last. An excellent forward by Geoff Dyer proceeds them where he describes what she does in her writing better than I ever could. Dillard's gaze focuses both on the minute and the infinite. Unanswerable questions are posed and she suggestions ways of looking. She gets at the way we as conscious bodies blunder through life eager to know, experience and understand.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAnnie Dillard
5 CommentsPost a comment

One of the longest flights I’ve taken in my life was from London to Beijing several years ago. Flying over the vast mountains and tundra of northern Asia I was amazed how incredibly desolate it was. Looking at a blank space on a map can’t convey the hundreds of miles of inaccessible emptiness that exists when you glide over it at such a height. Flying has the potential to radically shift your spatial awareness of the world. Or it may just be an isolated amount of time to catch up on reading or watching movies. I find our relationship to flying fascinating and I once wrote an absurdist short story about passengers in an airplane watching people rise from the earth. You can listen to a recording of this story ‘Rise’ being read by the actor Matt Alford at Liars’ League NYC here. Although people have many different reactions to the experience of flying, few have given such a sustained and deeply sensitive amount of thought about it as pilot Mark Vanhoenacker has in his book “Skyfaring.” This is an extended meditation on the process of flying and the way it transforms our relationship to the world we inhabit.

Vanhoenacker has flown all over the planet having worked for around a dozen years as a commercial 747 airline pilot. In this book he combines his technical insight about the mechanics of flight with his poetic sensibility about his place in the world. He focuses on particular subjects such as 'machine', 'air', 'water' or 'night' by combining scientific knowledge with meditations upon his experiences in flight. He's like a modern Antoine de Saint-Exupery who I first read last year. Of course, Vanhoenacker references him as well as many other writers to support different points he makes or illuminate profoundly different ways of viewing the world. He draws upon a wide variety of literary sources from the poet Rumi to Emily Bronte to Joan Didion. The convergence of all these things in this book creates deep-feeling insights on the distance between the self and the world around us.

Watch Mark Vanhoenacker read from and discuss his book Skyfaring at University Bookstore in Seattle.

What's so engaging about “Skyfaring” is Vanhoenacker's beautiful style of writing which provokes deep contemplation. It exhibits both an authoritative understanding and a ceaseless wonder. Stories of his life-long journey towards becoming a pilot are combined with specific experiences he's had flying around the world. There is a curiosity and excitement he shows about the naming of places, the nature of clouds, the poignancy of anonymous encounters which is infectious and makes you want to read more. It also paints the world and skies he sees on his flights with such exquisite detail it helps you re-experience and re-view those times you spent looking out of a plane's window. This book is a deeply thoughtful and enjoyable read.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson